North Korea appears to be readying one of its rocket sites for a vigorous testing program that could involve the country's mysterious new strategic missile.
Recent satellite images suggest that a potential trial of the KN-08 missile's rocket engine occurred at the Dongchang-ri missile site between late last month and early this month, the specialist website "38 North" said in a Wednesday analysis.
Surveillance photographs taken as recently as about a month ago show what could be the first stage of the KN-08 missile and a crane that potentially would have been used to lift the weapon's engine onto the launch platform. Subsequent images taken on Jan. 9 show the "possible rocket stage, vehicles and crane are no longer present," writes image analyst and report author Nick Hansen.
Hansen also points to the absence of snow in front of the flame trench on Jan. 9 that could have been melted either by the engine being fired up or by warmer weather. All of these signs amount to "limited evidence" that an engine test has occurred, he said.
The KN-08 has yet to be flight tested. While earlier versions of the suspected intercontinental ballistic missile displayed at parades appear to have been crude mockups, models seen in subsequent military displays look to have been better designed. This is a possible indication that North Korea is making progress in refining its road-mobile ballistic missile, according to independent experts.
U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper in a Wednesday briefing to the Senate said North Korea appears to have "already taken initial steps" to field the KN-08, despite the weapon being untested.
The signs picked up by 38 North -- a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University -- suggest that Pyongyang could be planning a testing program at Dongchang-ri for the KN-08 and separate space launch vehicles. Indications include:
-- the construction of two 45,000-gallon containers that could be intended for holding fuel for mobile missiles;
-- the placement of a permanent dish antenna that could be intended for tracking missile flight paths; and
-- the building of what appears to be two flat pads of a form traditionally utilized for launching mobile missiles.
All of this building work, which has been ongoing since last summer, is "consistent" with intentions to use the missile site as a training and firing facility for Pyongyang's "new generation of regional and intercontinental-range mobile missiles," 38 North concluded.
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